When the loudspeakers in our neighborhood blared the song “Seven Baby Chicks” at 5pm, it was time to return home for dinner:
Crow, why do you caw so?
Because up in the mountain
I have seven adorable baby chicks…
I really disliked this song because I always wanted to play outside longer and had very little interest in going home to eat. Decades later, I was amused whenever my nephews and nieces fell asleep at the dinner table because it confirmed that apathy for eating ran deep in my family during infancy.
But occasionally I was excited about food, in particular when my mother made us barley rice, called mugigohan, which was a mixture of white rice and rolled barley. A rolled barley looks just like a whiter rolled oat and it is flat with a line running down the center. When I spotted these telltale faint brown lines mixed into the rice, I would exclaim with joy. I picked the barley out with chopsticks and popped them individually into my mouth to enjoy their chewy texture. “Mugi is healthy, but a politician once said it’s food for the poor people,” my mother would often say as we ate our mugigohan. This made me think that “politicians” are nasty if they were telling poor people what to eat.
The word mugi in Japanese means wheat or barley. A rolled barley is called oshimugi, and barley tea is called mugicha. The other mugi that we grew up with was mugiwara boushi, which means straw hats. When we were young, many parents made us put on straw hats during the summer and because of this, they are synonymous in our minds with carefree adventures and summer holidays. So, anime fans, it is no coincidence that the protagonist “Luffy” of the popular anime series, “One Piece,” wears a straw hat as he continues his adventures while building friendships.
Straw hat also reminds me of the advertisement for the movie “The Proof of the Man” which was widely broadcast on TV in the summer of 1977. The movie was adapted from a popular murder mystery book written by Morimura Seiichi. I was too young at the time so I actually never saw the movie or read the book, but I vividly remember the commercial that started with an image of a straw hat falling into a ravine. The scene was accompanied by a poem by Saijo Yaso, called “My Hat,” somberly read by the voice of a young man:
I wonder what became of my hat
The straw hat that fell into the bottom of a ravine
On the way from Usui to Kiritsumi
I think most Japanese children who grew up in this era learned the beginning of this poem thanks to that TV commercial. It was, when I think back, the first time I heard a poem read aloud and experienced how words can evoke feelings.
I felt great sympathy for this man without his hat because I thought about the terrible feeling when I lost something and of the woefulness of having to tell mother. Once, probably a few months after watching the commercial, I lost my water bottle at school and my mother asked where it was. I said in a solemn tone, “mother, I wonder what became of my water bottle…,” at which point she burst out laughing. “You are just impossible,” she groaned, and laughed until tears were streaming down her face.